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« Certifiable | Main | Tom Daschle Is "Disappointed" »

Speaking Truth To Power

The Houston Chronicle has been running a very good series of articles this week on the mess that is our manned space program.

Too often, press accounts of the space program are either breathless and unquestioning regurgitations of overhyped NASA Public Affairs Office releases, or at the other extreme, dark exposes about activities of minions of the military-space industrial complex, plotting to enrich themselves at the expense of the downtrodden taxpayer and/or carry out secret space missions that will continue to make the rest of the world toiling slaves of the Amerikkkan Empire (TM).

Refreshingly, authors Tony Freemantle and Mike Tolson set just the right, sober tone, and considering that it's the hometown newspaper for NASA's Johnson Space Center, they, along with their paper, are to be commended for their willingness to tell stark truths, and to provide a history of the program untainted by local boosterism.

On Sunday, the thirty-fourth anniversary of the first moon landing, they provide the setting--NASA is at a crossroads in the wake of the Columbia loss.

I was encouraged by the fact, as reported here, that many are starting to realize that there is much wrong with the program, far beyond mere vehicle design. I've long been agitating for a serious national debate over the purposes of our civil policy, and if this article is correct, that may finally be happening:

"The Gehman report will mark the moment which will be noted in history as before and after," predicted U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. "After the report comes out, everyone will be committed to charting a new direction for the program that will have discernible goals."

Of course, that debate should be an informed one, and I would accordingly encourage everyone involved to read Monday's installment, which provides a great summary history of the space shuttle. Tuesday's installment describes similarly the history of the space station. Together, they give a good insight into how each program is dependent the other, not just technically, but in terms of institutional support--the shuttle was needed to provide a means of getting to space station and an excuse to build it, and the space station was needed to provide something for the shuttle to do.

A much better station could have been built, and much more quickly, had that been the goal, by developing a shuttle-derived heavy lifter. The costs of doing so would have been trivial in comparison to the cost savings. But to do so would have been to admit that the shuttle wasn't all that great for building space stations, ostensibly one of it primary purposes. So we spent at least an additional decade in construction, and arguably two (we could have had a fully-capable shuttle-derived station in the late eighties, and the current one isn't yet complete), to get a far inferior product.

But of course, building a space station wasn't the goal--having a space station program, that employed lots of people, was. I hope that, in the weeks leading up to the release of the Gehman report a month from now, there will be many more articles like this in the broader press, and that we can establish the basis for a long-needed national debate on not just the means, but the purposes, of our manned space program. And according to this article, the people seem to agree.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 24, 2003 08:31 AM
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“NASA's Vietnam:”

“Keyworth said the only reason Reagan endorsed it was political: 1984 was an election year and John Glenn, the senator from Ohio and America's first space hero, was a potential opponent.”

God, you just got to love the details ….Oh, and by the way….


Does anyone think the existing design can be ‘added-to’ in such a way that it would allow something good to happen before it gets too old? Isn’t its expected life 10 years? It may indeed become the more formal birthplace of tourism!

Does a polar orbiting station with maintainable Envisat like sensors and weapons monitoring Eq make more sense? Wouldn’t mind seeing a small geostationary outpost that can maintain a fleet of communications satellites or serve as one itself. Protected construction courtyard between segments, space tug doc to reach higher orbits??

Posted by Chris Eldridge at July 24, 2003 09:56 AM

Sadly no one reads the Houston Chronicle its a heaping pile of cow paddies. It does print sports scores but thats all that keeps it in business and the free grocery hand out for subscriptions. USA today has more readers than the Chronicle in Houston the writers would of done better if the had sent the story there.

Now I'm not critizing the article I'll never get to read since I won't even pick up the rag if it was on a table at McDonalds.

Posted by Dr. Clausewitz at July 24, 2003 05:50 PM

"A much better station could have been built, and much more quickly, had that been the goal, by developing a shuttle-derived heavy lifter."

Never mind a shuttle-based heavy lift vehicle--the U.S. could have built and launched a decent space station in one shot with a spare Saturn V rocket.

In fact, they did exactly that. It was called Skylab.

Skylab seems to be the forgotten phase of NASA's history; given how much money and time NASA has wasted on ISS (compared to what it took to launch and run Skylab), this is probably deliberate on their part. It is puzzling, though, to hear NASA's talking heads continually mentioning how we need ISS in order to learn how to live and work in space for long periods of time. I thought they already learned all that from Skylab (and from the Russians' experience with Salyut and Mir).

Posted by Peter the Not-so-Great at July 24, 2003 09:39 PM

Pertaining to the idea of the USAF meddling in the shuttle design by demanding so much cross range, maybe the Air Force felt too much competition with NASA and wanted to sort of 'throw a wrench into the works.'

I think the article on the shuttle was very revealing and very good: I give the writers credit for going to such extremes to get published. They were likely turned down by everybody and their unkle that did not want to stir up so much dirty laundry during such an anniversary.

As for Skylab and Saturn V's, I'll add that we certainly could have launched as many Saturn V's through the 80's and 90's as we did shuttle flights! Wouldn't that have been great!

I do like the soviet approach to stations a bit better than our 'one and all' shot. They gradually experimented with station design and kept improving them, while deorbiting the older test versions. This shows commitment to a long term goal. Building a palace like skylab was (a 100 tons I think) was great but at such a cost it would prohibit newer and better designs to come along as fast: just a thought - its nice to have tho Soviet model as a perspective.

Posted by Chris Eldridge at July 25, 2003 06:52 AM

>>It is puzzling, though, to hear NASA's talking heads continually mentioning how we need ISS in order to learn how to live and work in space for long periods of time

I can see, how settling the moon requires living and working in zero-gee for a long time. Its a whopping three day trip, heavens forbid.

Posted by at July 25, 2003 08:04 AM

Now when i started to think about it ive come to conclusion .. living and working on ISS for a long time teaches you exactly one thing : how to live and work on ISS for a long time.

Posted by at July 25, 2003 08:07 AM

I suppose the theory is that spending months living on ISS will teach us how to spend months getting to Mars.

That's all well and good, but, again, reflects the aimless nature of our space program. We have no plans to go to Mars, yet long-duration space travel is one of the biggest justifications for sustaining the ISS budget. In fact, what are the chances that ISS will teach us something we didnt't learn on Mir?

Posted by billg at July 25, 2003 04:44 PM

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